“Attitude counts” manifesto “We are experiencing a brutalization of language”

What made the appeal “Attitude counts” necessary?
What made the appeal “Attitude counts” necessary? | Photo (detail, Screenshot “Attitude counts”): © BLLV

Insults in the playground, hate-filled outbursts during break-time: Simone Fleischmann, president of the Bavarian Teachers‘ Association, warns of increasingly aggressive communication and its consequences. 

Ms. Fleischmann, in the summer of 2016, the Bavarian Teachers’ Association BLLV published its „Haltung zählt“ (i.e. Attitude counts) manifesto. In it, you warn of a schism in society, primarily as a result of right-wing populists and right-wing extremists, and oppose the growing aggressiveness that can be observed in language and in the way people treat one another. What made such a manifesto necessary in the first place? 

There are several reasons: in my role as president of the BLLV, I was invited to attend the first reading of the Integration Act at the Bavarian state parliament and was able to experience for myself how aggressive the mood was, and how the parliament’s president had to call the debating MPs to order on a number of occasions. And then more and more of my colleagues were reporting that they suffer verbal attacks whenever they engage in any kind of refugee activities. Another reason was the increase in the number of complaints from parents who fear that their children are not sufficiently challenged at school because German courses are being set up for refugee children.

The debate in society about refugees, which often has a polarizing effect, was one of the key reasons for launching your appeal. What is it that teachers are seeing at present?

Simone Fleischmann has been president of the Bavarian Teachers’ Association (BLLV) with its around 61,000 members since 2015. Simone Fleischmann has been president of the Bavarian Teachers’ Association (BLLV) with its around 61,000 members since 2015. | Photo (detail): © BLLV Schools are a mirror of society. Some politicians go overboard in terms of the language they use – when talking about refugees, for example – with the result that this aggressive political debate is passed on via the media to parents. The harsher the tone of the political discussion, the more firmly resentment will become anchored in the minds of the population, and the more ruthlessly people will express their opinions. This can also be observed in schools, where insults such as “bloody foreigners” are hurled around and minorities are discriminated against. We are experiencing a brutalization of language, with the result that democratic processes are no longer obvious to children.

What do you see as the cause of this development?

Children learn by example. When they see adults using abusive language in response to conflict situations, they follow suit. Mindsets can quickly translate into action, especially in the case of children and young adults. This is what we are warning against: we want to avoid raising a generation that hurts others not only through aggressive words but also through aggressive actions.

The manifesto ends by calling for people to stand up and fight for a tolerant and open-minded society and for respect in our dealings with one another. What specifically does this mean?

If a teenager yells out “bloody foreigner” in the assembly hall, the teacher must go straight over and signal – through unequivocal body language and words – that this is completely unacceptable. And the teacher must then act by example: rather than yelling back at the pupil, the teacher needs to sit down and discuss with him or her what prompted the pupil to make the comment. What we specifically want to happen is for teachers to intervene in everyday school life and to ban abusive language – in the classroom, in break-time, in the playground, and indeed at parents’ evenings. We want them to call upon those involved to treat one another fairly and not to discriminate against anyone. Our goal is also for the manifesto to receive broad-based support in society, however. We wish to call upon everyone to have the courage to stand up and say “Stop!” when difficult situations arise.

Who needs particular training in how to “stand up and fight”: pupils, teachers, parents, journalists or politicians? 

This is a challenge for society as a whole, and we all have our part to play. We must stand up and fight together – be it in the pub, at school, in the media. What is the subtext of a particular article? What happens when one person discredits another? What does a teacher say at school? What are people at the butcher’s shop saying about the refugees in the local neighbourhood? In such situations we all have a duty to be attentive and to intervene.

What should politicians do to improve communication – apart from choosing their words more carefully?

Some politicians intentionally provoke friction between different sections of the population. We certainly won’t reach them with our manifesto. We need more scope to teach democracy in schools. Rather than simply plodding through the curriculum, we need now to react to the changes in our society. We must be able to take the time necessary to discuss with pupils how democratic processes function. How do we arrive at a decision? How do we respond to other opinions and viewpoints? Do we shout down those who have a different opinion, or do we listen and negotiate? We must show pupils by example and allow them to experience what democratic debate means.

In your opinion, what are the chances of getting people to show respect towards one another at school and in society? 

In issuing the manifesto, our aim is to address this sensitive issue and attempt to give people support so that they dare to stand up and fight for what they believe in. I became an educator because I was always convinced that positive forms of behaviour can be taught to, discussed with and demonstrated to children and young adults in particular. The job of all schools is to educate their pupils. Integration, inclusion and digitization are three major challenges facing schools. As teachers, we play an important part in overcoming these challenges, and I am optimistic that we will continue to do this successfully in the future.